The music is a facsimile of the Eton Choirbook, a collection of sacred works from Eton College Chapel, near Windsor Castle.
“You’ve got rhythm, you’ve got pitches and you’ve got words,” Pitts says. “You have to approach each separately. The rhythm is hardest because it is a different system of notation.”
But while unlocking the arcane system is intensely challenging, it also brings great benefits in performance, says Pitts.
“You have to build up this mental map as you rehearse it,” he says. “I think it created in the individual singer an awareness of tuning and line.”
Among the multiple complications of learning the intricate compositions is the expectation in early music that singers should know whether any given note should be sharpened or flattened.
“We’re trying to equip Australian singers with some of these skills,” Pitts says. “I think one of our responsibilities as the Song Company is to inform and educate in certain aspects of early music, as well as new music, and to take our singers and this wider group of associate artists and emerging artists onto the next level.”
This is Pitts’ fourth season at the helm of the Song Company. He took the baton from veteran director Roland Peelman in 2016 and has since delighted in creating often adventurous and challenging programs.
This year will be no exception. The 2019 program, entitled Above Beyond, includes a semi-staged chamber opera described as being about “two lifts and a computer virus in a bed of 1980s pop gold”, a concert of 19 new miniature commissions from Australian composers and a collaboration with Melbourne metal band the Omnific.
The Omnific are a bass guitar duo and their music will be fused with that of 12th-century composer Magister Perotin.
“I was looking for someone to collaborate with where we could sing this 12th-century work and worry less about it being historically accurate and more thinking about what are the connections between this very old music and what’s being written right now,” Pitts says.
“It’s an experiment and takes us outside the envelope. I hope people who know and love what we do will trust us enough to come on this journey with us.”
But in among all the boundary-pushing experimentation, Pitts cleaves to a single idea – that of “creating beauty”.
“We create beauty with our voices, which unlocks things for the listener and ourselves as well. We are very privileged to do difficult, unexplored, experimental things but all with the aim of creating beauty.”
The Song Company performs Treble Helix Unlocked on February 12, Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House. See song.company for other dates.